The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


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Traffics and Discoveries by Rudyard Kipling (1904)

Kipling wrote some 250 short stories. He published them in all sorts of contemporary newspapers and journals throughout his long career, and it was his practice to bring them together into collections published every few years. These collections form milestones through his oeuvre.

It was also his habit to prefix or follow each story with a short poem commenting directly or obliquely on the narratives they decorate – a habit he picked up, apparently, from a favourite author, Ralph Waldo Emerson and took to new heights of complex interaction and subtle commentary.

This 1904 collection takes its name from The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation of Richard Hakluyt (c. 1552-1616), a compendium of exciting Elizabethan sailing expeditions. Traffics and Discoveries includes:

The Captive (1902) – This starts as a third-person account of a journalist (obviously Kipling) visiting a Boer prisoner of war camp during the Boer War (1899 to 1902). As so often the opening scene setting is vivid and powerful. Wandering among the men he gets talking to one, an American – Laughton O. Zigler from Akron, Ohio – who gives a long rambling first-person account of how he brought across the Atlantic a field gun and ammunition of his own design to sell to the Boers and ended up getting involved with one of their commandos, led by Adrian Van Zyl, helping them fight in the field against the British, until they were all captured.

Kipling characteristically stuffs the text with his technical know-how about artillery pieces, about the ‘hopper-feed and recoil-cylinder’, trying to out-man and out-engineer the reader, which isn’t very difficult. Zigler’s tone, his description of the sporadic artillery encounters with the Brits, is very casual; it’s hard not to find Zigler’s joking about ‘laying out’ the British boys with his gun, offensive.

‘They [the Boers] fought to kill, and, by what I could make out, the British fought to be killed. So both parties were accommodated.’

The war is seen as a comradely adventure between ‘friends’ and all the British officers Zigler meets admit to being ‘a bit pro-Boer’. (Is this how combatants saw the Boer War? Or is it the sentimental self-serving view of a privileged observer?) From Zigler’s account both sides spend half the time trying to kill each other and the other half being polite and complimentary. Often the combatants had actually met socially, dined and gossiped: now they are trying to kill each other.

The second half of the ‘story’ describes the dinner the British General and officers give for Zigler and Van Zyl, once they are prisoners, during which they compare notes like professionals. The British General is mighty lofty and complacent, hoping the war will go on another five years, so that he can knock his ragtag collection of floorworkers and stevedores into a professional army. Nothing is mentioned of the rank incompetence and idiocy which made the Boer War such a shambles for the British. (See The Boer War by Thomas Pakenham.) And a ghost walks over the text when the General boomingly declares:

‘It’s a first-class dress-parade for Armageddon.’

Yes, far more so than anyone knew. These are the kind of heartless pro-war sentiments for which Kipling would later be crucified.

As well as satirising the amateur, jolly-good-chap attitude of the British officers, using Zigler, an American, as a mouthpiece, means Kipling can also be sarcastic about the British political class, all couched in Zigler’s down-home terminology:

‘Well, you’ve an effete aristocracy running yours, and we’ve a crowd of politicians. The results are practically identical.’

‘I tell you, Sir, there’s not much of anything the matter with the Royal British Artillery. They’re brainy men languishing under an effete system which, when you take good holt of it, is England…’

The Captive is of a piece with Kipling’s other ‘warning’ poems and stories, warning that only eternal vigilance could keep Britain safe from her ever-present enemies, and lamenting the failure of peacetime politicians to pay enough heed, to take war seriously and to prosecute it whole-heartedly.

The Bonds of Discipline (1903) – Inspired by reading a book by a Frenchman who stowed away on a Royal Navy ship, the narrator travels to Portsmouth where he asks a publican to rustle up any sailors from the ship in question. He is introduced to Emanuel Pyecroft, second-class petty-officer, who serves on the very same ship and happened to be present when the French author of the book was caught masquerading as a Portuguese stowaway. He explains that the captain of the ship quickly realised the so-called Portuguese was in fact a french spy, and so proceeded to put on a lot of preposterous ship-board behaviour (including a mock execution) to rag and mislead him.

If The Captive allowed Kipling to showcase his knowledge of artillery, this story is a prolonged exercise in Kipling showing off his knowledge of naval speech rhythms, slang and technical gubbins aboard ship. The entire thing is told through the voice of Pyecroft which – like the voices of the three soldiers back in his Plain Tales period, or the rural dialect of his later Sussex period, is excruciatingly difficult to follow:

‘“When it comes to “Down ‘ammicks!” which is our naval way o’ goin’ to bye-bye, I took particular trouble over Antonio, ‘oo had ‘is ‘ammick ‘ove at ’im with general instructions to sling it an’ be sugared. In the ensuin’ melly I pioneered him to the after-‘atch, which is a orifice communicatin’ with the after-flat an’ similar suites of apartments. He havin’ navigated at three fifths power immejit ahead o’ me, I wasn’t goin’ to volunteer any assistance, nor he didn’t need it.’
“‘Mong Jew!’ says ‘e, sniffin’ round. An’ twice more ‘Mong Jew!’— which is pure French. Then he slings ‘is ‘ammick, nips in, an’ coils down. ‘Not bad for a Portugee conscript,’ I says to myself, casts off the tow, abandons him, and reports to ‘Op.

Like most of Kipling’s stories told by ‘characters’ in their slang and accents, it is almost unreadable (cf The Wish House). Kipling comes over as immensely pleased with himself and the bumptious diction of his music hall marine, revelling in his self-congratulatory facetiousness:

“In the balmy dawnin’ it was given out, all among the ‘olystones, by our sub-lootenant, who was a three-way-discharge devil, that all orders after eight bells was to be executed in inverse ration to the cube o’ the velocity. ‘The reg’lar routine,’ he says, ‘was arrogated for reasons o’ state an’ policy, an’ any flat-foot who presumed to exhibit surprise, annoyance, or amusement, would be slightly but firmly reproached.’

The ‘story’, as much as you can disentangle it from all this verbiage, is that the whole crew realised the Frenchie was a spy and so put on all manner of extravagant performances of incompetence and disobedience in order to mislead him, leading up to a faked execution by firing squad of a sailor. All of which is dutifully reported in the Frenchman’s book, which is the one the narrator was reading in the opening lines. Conclusions: Silly gullible French.

This is the first of six Pyecroft stories devoted to showcasing Kipling’s knowledge of naval matters and carry his booming calls for naval re-armament.

A Sahibs’ War (1901) – Umr Singh is a Sikh in the British Army who is in South Africa during the Boer War and has been tasked with going to ‘Eshtellenbosch’ to collect horses. The text is entirely his monologue to a Sahib who helps him get a ticket for the right train, in which he a) shows off his knowledge of Indian customs, religion, traditions and service in the Indian Army b) laments the British setbacks in the Boer War due to their being too courteous and considerate of the Boer guerrillas.

The Sikh thinks it silly of the British not to have used the Indian Army to put down the Boers, silly and subversive, for if the Brits fail in South Africa other colonies will take note of their weakness. That is the view of Umr’s ‘sahib’, his former master, Captain Corbyn or ‘Kurban Sahib’.

But privately to me Kurban Sahib said we should have loosed the Sikhs and the Gurkhas on these people till they came in with their foreheads in the dust.

The reason the Indian Army was forbidden to be involved is that it is a White Man’s war – white British against white Dutch. The actual African inhabitants of South Africa are hardly mentioned except insofar as they spark Umr’s own prejudices – he is not happy, when he arrives in Africa, to be given command of a load of ‘niggers’ – Kaffirs, who are ‘filth unspeakable’.

But the core of the story is how Umr and his Sahib, Captain Corbyn both volunteered to take ‘sick leave’ from their Indian regiment to come and fight the Boers – the kind of higher loyalty to the Empire and the Law which Kipling admires. They attach themselves to a regiment of Australians for whom Kipling has boundless admiration. In the central episode they are all tricked by the Boers inhabiting an ‘innocent’, ‘peaceful’ farmhouse, who are in fact organising an ambush of them all, a sudden fusillade of rifle shots, in which Corbyn is killed and Umr only just escapes.

In a rage Umr and the Muslim servant Sikandar Khan who they have picked up in their travels, go back to the farmhouse to take revenge, beheading one of the wounded Boers inside it and seizing the mentally sub-normal son of the householders to hang him in a nearby tree as punishment, as revenge on the treacherous farmer-priest and his wife.

But here – the irrational and uncanny in Kipling shows itself, as so often – for in the middle of this brutal wartime anecdote, the ghost of Kurban Sahib appears to Umr and three times forbids him from hanging the boy, ‘for it is a Sahibs’ war’.

This latter part of the text, the account of the ambush and then the narrator’s revenge, is vivid and powerful, and the appearance of the Sahib’s ghost eerie – it has a real imaginative force – Kipling’s daemon pushing through. But it is embedded in a text which overflows with contempt, hatred, resentment, is marinated in multiple types of racial prejudice, and is continually teetering on the edge of, not just violence but sadistic violence, vengeful hateful violence.

This is all epitomised in the last few lines of the text when Umr returns to the site of his Sahib’s death and rejoices to find, not only a memorial carved by the loyal and dutiful Australians – but that the Boer farmhouse, the well, the water tank, the barn and fruit trees – all have been razed from the face of the earth, by the ‘manly’ Australians, who aren’t shackled by the British concern for ‘fair play’.

The narrator rejoices, Kipling rejoices, and the reader is meant to rejoice in this act of nihilistic vengeance – the kind of scorched earth policy which will characterise so much of 20th century history.

‘Their Lawful Occasions’ The narrator (pretty obviously Kipling) is invited to go down to Weymouth to go aboard ship and witness Royal Navy manoeuvres; but in the town he bumps into his old mucker, Emanuel Pyecroft (who we met in The Bonds of Discipline). Very like Mulvaney, one of the Three Soldiers, Pyecroft has a cheeky and facetious sense of humour with which he explains that his ship, 267, is being mocked up by its captain to look like a destroyer so it can steam out and take part in the naval wargames starting that night. The whole thing is told in a tone of forced humour and all the characters speak with elaborate facetiousness.

A thin cough ran up the speaking-tube.
“Well, what is it, Mr. Hinchcliffe?” said Moorshed.
“I merely wished to report that she is still continuin’ to go, Sir.”
“Right-O! Can we whack her up to fifteen, d’you think?”
“I’ll try, Sir; but we’d prefer to have the engine-room hatch open — at first, Sir.”
Whacked up then she was, and for half an hour was careered largely through the night, turning at last with a suddenness that slung us across the narrow deck.

With Kipling, you often have the feeling that a huge amount of effort, imagination and humour has been wasted on ‘stories’ which no way justify them. Here, for example, is our hero describing what a torpedo boat sounds like if you’re trying to get to sleep on it.

‘Sleepin’ in a torpedo-boat’s what you might call an acquired habit.”
I coiled down on an iron-hard horse-hair pillow next the quivering steel wall to acquire that habit. The sea, sliding over 267’s skin, worried me with importunate, half-caught confidences. It drummed tackily to gather my attention, coughed, spat, cleared its throat, and, on the eve of that portentous communication, retired up stage as a multitude whispering. Anon, I caught the tramp of armies afoot, the hum of crowded cities awaiting the event, the single sob of a woman, and dry roaring of wild beasts. A dropped shovel clanging on the stokehold floor was, naturally enough, the unbarring of arena gates; our sucking uplift across the crest of some little swell, nothing less than the haling forth of new worlds; our half-turning descent into the hollow of its mate, the abysmal plunge of God-forgotten planets. Through all these phenomena and more — though I ran with wild horses over illimitable plains of rustling grass; though I crouched belly-flat under appalling fires of musketry; though I was Livingstone, painless, and incurious in the grip of his lion — my shut eyes saw the lamp swinging in its gimbals, the irregularly gliding patch of light on the steel ladder, and every elastic shadow in the corners of the frail angle-irons; while my body strove to accommodate itself to the infernal vibration of the machine. At the last I rolled limply on the floor, and woke to real life with a bruised nose and a great call to go on deck at once.

Vivid, as are the descriptions of the ship and of the sea, the English Channel, in its changing lights – all excellent, down to the presentation of tiny and convincing details.

Presently a hand-bellows foghorn jarred like a corncrake, and there rattled out of the mist a big ship literally above us. We could count the rivets in her plates as we scrooped by, and the little drops of dew gathered below them.

But there is little or no plot to speak of and what there is is very hard to make out. Only slowly did I realise that the ‘267’ is going under cover so it can ‘bag’ the destroyers in the war games; i.e. it is joining the flotilla masquerading as another ship and then will sail close enough to the other ships to – I think – mark them with some kind of paint, indicating that it is an ‘enemy’ ship and has ‘destroyed’ them as part of the war games.

In practice this amounts to dialogue-overheavy larks in the Channel fog and dark, as the captain and crew dodge and weave between the vast destroyers on manoeuvres.

Kipling was thrashed and beaten as a boy at his miserable foster home in Portsmouth and then at public school. It is difficult to read a story like this and not see it as the troubled adult who emerged from this hellish childhood fantasising about being accepted on their own terms by manly men – one of the team, one of the crew, manfully shaking hands, drinking strong liquor and eyes shining with troubles and challenges shared and overcome.

The manliness, the obsession with technical detail and the brusque, obscure way in which it’s conveyed, can be read as all part of the bookish, short-sighted wimp’s massive over-compensation, his adoration of Real Men.

Hence also, maybe, the excessive anger and vengefulness, the addiction to kicking the weak and vulnerable, which disfigures so many of his stories.

The Comprehension of Private Copper (1902) – A Boer guerrilla captures Private Alf Copper who had strayed unwisely far from his platoon and into the bush. The Boer descants at length about how his father, a Transvaal shop-keeper, was deceived out of his livelihood by the British, along with numerous insults of the British fighting ability or the morale of the poor Tommy far from home.

But in saying all this the Boer gets just a bit too close to Alf Copper, who lays him out with one well-aimed punch. Hah! Decadent, demoralised Tomy, is he! that’ll show ‘im! Kipling couldn’t be more frothingly on the side of the British Army and against the treacherous deceiving Boers.

More propaganda follows when Alf gets his now-captive Boer captive back to his picket, where his mates are looking over a British Liberal paper which is blackening their names back home. One of the Tommies satirically quotes it:

‘You’re the uneducated ‘ireling of a callous aristocracy which ‘as sold itself to the ‘Ebrew financier. Meantime, Ducky”— he ran his finger down a column of assorted paragraphs —“you’re slakin’ your brutal instincks in furious excesses. Shriekin’ women an’ desolated ‘omesteads is what you enjoy, Alf . . ., Halloa! What’s a smokin’ ‘ektacomb?’

The general idea is that both the arrogant Boer and the treacherous Liberals back home think the British Tommy doesn’t know what he’s fighting for and is a poor, badly educated pawn – but oh yes he does and oh no he isn’t! The text sets out to humiliate the arrogant Boer and ridicule whining anti-Imperial Liberals.

Steam Tactics (1902) – Third of the six Pyecroft stories, in which the narrator – while driving in his new-fangled steam motor car – meets him and Hinchcliffe, the naval engineer, on leave in sunny Sussex. Taking the idea that there are all kinds of angers and revenges going on in Kipling’s mind and texts, stories like this provide plenty of examples of the way this anger operates not only at the level of storyline and character (arrogant Boer, stupid Liberals, dogged Tommy, in the stories above). It might also explain the deliberate, wilful and aggressive obscurity of individual paragraphs and sentences. For example:

A bluish and silent beast of the true old sheep-dog breed glided from behind an outhouse and without words fell to work.

It is impossible from reading this to know what is going on; only the succeeding sentence makes it clear:

Pyecroft kept him at bay with a rake-handle while our party, in rallying-square, retired along the box-bordered brick-path to the car.

So ‘fell to work’ means the dog began barking and menacing them. Ah. In individual paragraphs, in sequences, and across entire stories, Kipling deliberately keeps things from the reader. Why? In a spirit of Modernist elitism and allusion? No. In order to beat the reader, to ‘best’ the reader. To be the winner, yah boo sucks.

This enjoyment of physical humiliation is present from the first few lines, where the narrator takes typically brutal pleasure in driving up behind the dawdling horse-drawn postal carrier and using his loud steam hooter to scare the horse so badly that it bolts into the hedgerow, scattering parcels all over the road. Ha ha ha, yah boo sucks. Kipling thinks this is hilarious. The reader thinks he’s a bully.

The ‘story’ only finally arrives after pages and pages of Pyecroft’s ship’s engineer, Hinchcliffe, and the narrator’s own chauffeur and mechanic poring over the steam car’s entrails to show us Kipling’s detailed technical knowledge.

The ‘story’ amounts to the car being pulled over by a man who pretends to be a special constable who will fine them for exceeding the speed limit. But Kipling, Pyecroft and Hinchcliffe suspect he is an imposter and con man. So they invite him into the car and immediately strong-arm and threaten and humiliate him. They’re discussing whether to strip him of his boots or just hang him, when another jalopy turns up, driven by Kipling’s friend Kysh, and they fall to discussing how the authorities have got it in for the poor motorist (the kind of aggressive self-pity which and aggrieved victimhood which all motorists still enjoy to this day).

Instead they drive in Kysh’s vast powerful petrol-fuelled Octopod across Sussex, then off the road into a private park all to deliberately maroon the poor policeman in an early version of a safari park, among bemused kangaroos in a rich man’s private game park. Yah boo sucks to all traffic police.

“Wireless” (1902) – An eerie supernatural story in which Kipling is invited to the local chemist’s shop where the tubercular chemist, Mr Shaynor, is allowing a young friend, Mr Cashell, to set up very early radio antenna and equipment to receive a signal from Poole.

But wile the engineer is fussing over his equipment a completely different signal comes through: for the young chemist is in love with a local girl called Fanny but he is tubercular and coughing blood. He dozes off in a corner then suddenly wakes and, in a kind of trance, starta to scribble verses which Kipling realises exactly match The Eve of St Agnes, a long poem by the Romantic poet John Keats. And now the narrator realises that Keats himself was a chemist’s assistant, he had tuberculosis, he also was in love with a young woman named Fanny. The narrator has a weird out of body moment as he realises that– maybe the chemist is channeling the spirit of the long-dead poet!

For an instant, that was half an eternity, the shop spun before me in a rainbow-tinted whirl, in and through which my own soul most dispassionately considered my own soul as that fought with an over-mastering fear.

Weird and uncanny, like most of Kipling’s many supernatural stories. (And always a relief that nobody gets beaten or humiliated.)

The Army of a Dream (1904) – the narrator falls asleep in his club and has a long and obscure dream in which he meets old military men who live in a parallel universe, in a society designed and run to create an unbeatable amry, a society in which they recruit and train men much earlier and better, in fact starting as early as six. Having had the new system explained to him in theory, the narrator goes to watch men practising with arms in the vast parade ground in central London, realising that passersby and lookers-on admire and envy the British Army – unlike the mockery and condescension it suffers in actual Victorian society.

In other words, this long fantasia stems from Kipling’s anger at the incompetent amateurishness of the British Army during the Boer War.

Kipling’s stories often teeter on the edge of having no plot: this one falls over the edge into being a kind of fictionalised pamphlet, advocating a recipe for the militarisation of society in a way familiar to students of Prussian society or Nazi Germany. And what could be more stirring than marching in shiny uniform through an adoring public.

I rejoiced to the marrow of my bones thus to be borne along on billows of surging music among magnificent men, in sunlight, through a crowded town whose people, I could feel, regarded us with comradeship, affection — and more.

As a rule of thumb, the more dialogue in a Kipling story the more incomprehensible it will be, as he exercises his unfailing enthusiasm to do funny voices at the reader’s expense.

“I was roped in the other day as an Adjustment Committee by the Kemptown Board School. I was riding under the Brighton racecourse, and I heard the whistle goin’ for umpire — the regulation, two longs and two shorts. I didn’t take any notice till an infant about a yard high jumped up from a furze-patch and shouted: ‘Guard! Guard! Come ’ere! I want you perfessionally. Alf says ‘e ain’t outflanked. Ain’t ‘e a liar? Come an’ look ‘ow I’ve posted my men.’ You bet I looked. The young demon trotted by my stirrup and showed me his whole army (twenty of ’em) laid out under cover as nicely as you please round a cowhouse in a hollow. He kept on shouting: ‘I’ve drew Alf into there. ‘Is persition ain’t tenable. Say it ain’t tenable, Guard!’ I rode round the position, and Alf with his army came out of his cowhouse an’ sat on the roof and protested like a — like a Militia Colonel; but the facts were in favour of my friend and I umpired according. Well, Alf abode by my decision. I explained it to him at length, and he solemnly paid up his head-money — farthing points if you please.”

The most telling moment of this long, long text comes in the last paragraph where the narrator suddenly sees all the bright young officers who have been showing him round the dream army, dining and bantering and chaffing – he sees them all dead or expiring on the dusty veldt of South Africa. A characteristically brutal and bitter and angry symbol of the price of the Army, and society’s, rank incompetence.

It is characteristic of Kipling’s impact in the real world of active men, that the following year he had this ‘story’ – really a prospectus for the organisation of a conscript army – printed as a six-penny pamphlet ‘as there have been numerous requests from adjutants of volunteers etc. to get it to their companies’. (Rudyard Kipling: His life and Work by Charles Carrington, Penguin edition, page 469)

“They” (1904) The unnamed narrator is driving his car round Sussex when he comes across a mysteriously beautiful and quiet country house, where he spies children playing amid the landscaped gardens, before meeting the owner, an elegant beautiful woman who is quite blind. It takes several visits and repeated hints from the remote butler, before the penny drops, and the narrator realises that the elusive children are ghosts – a realisation passed to him when one of the children kisses his palm in a way he realises, with a jolt, only his dead daughter did. A major feature of Kipling’s fiction is its tendency to be clipped and elliptical. Thus nowhere in the story does it say it was the kiss of the narrator’s child; I only learned this crucial fact from the Kipling Society website’s excellent notes on the story.

Atmosphere and description he does excellently well. Here is the narrator in his car:

As I reached the crest of the Downs I felt the soft air change, saw it glaze under the sun; and, looking down at the sea, in that instant beheld the blue of the Channel turn through polished silver and dulled steel to dingy pewter. A laden collier hugging the coast steered outward for deeper water and, across copper-coloured haze, I saw sails rise one by one on the anchored fishing-fleet. In a deep dene behind me an eddy of sudden wind drummed through sheltered oaks, and spun aloft the first day sample of autumn leaves. When I reached the beach road the sea-fog fumed over the brickfields, and the tide was telling all the groins of the gale beyond Ushant. In less than an hour summer England vanished in chill grey. We were again the shut island of the North, all the ships of the world bellowing at our perilous gates; and between their outcries ran the piping of bewildered gulls. My cap dripped moisture, the folds of the rug held it in pools or sluiced it away in runnels, and the salt-rime stuck to my lips.

Mrs. Bathurst (1904) Fourth of the stories about Petty Officer Emanuel Pyecroft. As with all Kipling’s stories told in dialogue it is difficult to follow and hard to care.

“Moon — Moon! Now where did I last . . .? Oh yes, when I was in the Palladium! I met Quigley at Buncrana Station. He told me Moon ‘ad run when the Astrild sloop was cruising among the South Seas three years back. He always showed signs o’ bein’ a Mormonastic beggar. Yes, he slipped off quietly an’ they ‘adn’t time to chase ’im round the islands even if the navigatin’ officer ‘ad been equal to the job.”
“Wasn’t he?” said Hooper.
“Not so. Accordin’ to Quigley the Astrild spent half her commission rompin’ up the beach like a she-turtle, an’ the other half hatching turtles’ eggs on the top o’ numerous reefs. When she was docked at Sydney her copper looked like Aunt Maria’s washing on the line — an’ her ‘midship frames was sprung. The commander swore the dockyard ‘ad done it haulin’ the pore thing on to the slips. They do do strange things at sea, Mr. Hooper.”

The narrator meets old friend Hooper, a railway official, at Simon’s Town, the naval base in South Africa. They’re enjoying a beer in a carriage near the beach when up comes none other than Pyecroft accompanied by a burly marine, Sergeant Pritchard, a Royal Marine.

As in so many Kipling stories they get to yarning and gossiping about people we’ve never heard of and don’t care about – to establish the mood – and this takes up a good half of the text, before they get round to discussing a particular tale. This concerns a man they know who deserted for the sake of a woman, a Mrs Bathurst, a widow who kept a bar in Auckland. He was Vickery, fifteen years in the service and just 18 months short of his pension, hopelessly smitten by the loyal Mrs B.

Eerie aspects:

1. Vickery has four false teeth in his lower left jaw. They don’t fit very well, hence his nickname ‘Clicks’. This is the kind of detail Kipling does well.

2. Vickery sees Mrs B in a very early cinematograph film shot at Paddington station and being shown as part of a travelling circus in the Cape. He insists on taking Pyecroft to it five nights in a row just to watch 45 seconds of Mrs B walking jerkily and silently towards the camera. This is one of the first mentions of a cinematoscope in fiction and typical of Kipling’s interest in gadgets and technology.

3. Hooper has been listening hard all this time, and asks whether Vickery had a tattoo before revealing that, as part of his work, he had to investigate the case of two corpses found burnt to carbon in a densely wooded part of the rail system in the interior – and one of them had a tattoo like Pyecroft describes, and four false teeth!

Victorian culture prevented any mention of sex or sexual attraction. Maybe what makes stories like this so unfulfilling is that Vickery clearly had some kind of burning obsession for Mrs Bathurst – but whatever its true nature, the repressed obsessiveness of it comes out in the bizarreness of the details of the text, which are almost like symptoms in a case study by Freud.

Below the Mill Dam (1904) – One of Kipling’s ‘objects and animals speaking’ stories. The mill is, of course, as old as he Doomsday book and the Mill Wheel talks, so do the Waters, and the Grey Cat and the Black Rat which inhabit it.

The joke is that they speak in ever-so-posh phraseology, presumably mocking the English upper classes.

The plot seems to be that the humans have rigged up a dynamo to the mill wheel which, towards the end of the story, they switch on and which floods the mill house with new-fangled electric light, much to all the inhuman characters’ amazement!

And the twist is that the Spirit of the Mill adapts wonderfully fast to the new electric turbines and all its advantages. Within a page or so it has taken the new-fangled technology in its stride and is telling the animals all about the benefits of electricity, for example illuminating the barn where cows can now calve at night etc.

It is powerfully done – but imagining animals and machinery talking isn’t really a story.

*****

Kipling and le Carré

In his aggressive public school facetiousness, Kipling reminds me exactly of the laboured humour of John le Carré:

After a great meal we poured libations and made burnt-offerings in honour of Kysh, who received our homage graciously.

I conceived great respect for Apothecaries’ Hall, and esteem for Mr. Cashell, a zealous craftsman who magnified his calling.

This is exactly the kind of pompous-sounding phraseology which mars so much of le Carré’s prose, as detailed in any of my reviews of his novels. Either the self-congratulatory and elaborately facetious lingo of the public school environment was remarkably consistent from the 1870s to the 1930s (when le Carré attended boarding school) or there’s a more direct influence of Kipling the Imperial propagandist on the twentieth century’s greatest spy writer. Would be interesting to know if a study has been made on the subject…


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